I finished Star King by Jack Vance yesterday. It is the fourth Vance novel that I have read and it is the first in his Demon Princes series of novels. I read the DAW edition (No. 305) from 1978 with cover by Gino D’Achille. I was not too excited to read this – because I am not feeling like reading a series. Plus, the tagline “The first of the Demon Princes novels” doesn’t really do much for me. The cover of my edition is rather amusing – the chubby diaper-wearing dude swinging a lance at spaceman is just silly.
Each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of some “excerpt” from a book, magazine, report, etc. that is given to explain or give background to some aspect of the storyline. Some readers did not like this. I don’t mind it. It is like data-dumping and being honest about it. You need to know this, but the author doesn’t want to waste a chapter droning about it. Read these preface pieces and move on with the story.
Anyway, the book begins fairly interestingly. Smade’s Tavern is a pretty neat thing. The only building on an entire (rather inhospitable) planet is a tavern/inn where anyone is welcome and there is somewhat of an uneasy truce held. I have to admit, for better or worse, I kept imagining the Inn of the Last Home and the innkeeper Otik from the Dragonlance series. I know that that is just offensive to true science fiction/Vance-fans. Sorry. Anyway, here we meet the main character, he is given his problematic, and introduced to his foes.
The novel feels like a cross between 007 and Clue if it took place in space and presents theories on revenge/vengeance. The novel does have somewhat of a sluggish start. I feel like it takes a little bit of patience to read the first two chapters. And one of my biggest issues of this book is just what the hell the main character Kirth Gersen does/is. He first says he is a “locator.” Then he says he is not. Does he or does he not have some connection to the IPCC? Then we are told he was trained and developed by his grandfather, who wished Kirth to be some sort of roaming anti-hero outlaw-revenger. But Kirth did get formal training, too, at some institutions. So, after all of this, I just want some straight answer on this point.
One of the best things about Vance’s writing, particularly in this novel, is the absolute ease with which he moves through his galaxy. A lot of space opera science fiction novels seem to struggle and really work at trying to get their picture of the galaxy across to us. Some authors really want to hammer out the “map” and they seem to be working just as hard to remind themselves what the galaxy looks like, too. Vance does this effortlessly. He has a whole galaxy mapped out and we move smoothly through it to various points.
It is a really well-written novel. I like the somewhat wry and flirtatious interlude with Kirth and Pallis. I like the neat way Kirth deals with the assassin Suthiro. Vance also writes a very good “mystery” – he also wrote actual mystery novels, even using the famous “Ellery Queen” penname. So, it is rather interesting to follow along with Kirth Gersen as he “interviews” the other characters and tries to piece together the background. Finally, I like the carefully-handled science fiction elements. I liked the projectile weapons, I liked the concept and design of the “Star Kings,” and I really liked the idea of the planet which is a burned-out sun.
Now, there are things that I found odd or disliked. The Stockholm Syndrome weirdness with Robin Rampold and Dasce is a bit…. weird. It amuses me that Dasce calls himself “Mr. Spock.” I was glad we got to meet a bunch of characters one-on-one with Kirth, but I was disappointed with how Tristano was dealt with. A minor complaint. Finally, Kirth is both adept and skilled, but also gets sucker-punched and fails sometimes. Maybe this makes him a good all-around character – he possesses flaws as well as skills. But there’s something about this that seems slightly off-balance. He gets ambushed by the assassins, but on the other hand manages to pilot a ship with a variety of very difficult persons on it. I don’t know how familiar you are with road trips, but I can barely go down the street without a measure of pandemonium in the vehicle. And I like everyone in the car!
Finally, we are constantly told how bad Malagate the Woe is… but when we find out his motive for this particular situation Kirth is dealing with – it is not so “evil,” I guess. And Vance just gives the reason to us, we nod, and then we move on. I feel like we could have explored this a little bit further without detriment.
Overall, I can see some readers being bored by this. Maybe too much mystery and too much rumination on the ends of revenge. However, there is a whole lot of good writing and originality to be found in this novel. I do want to read onward in the series and I think this was well worth my time.